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General and Technical Details of my Qin Recordings  
  In the new Studio for Seeking Solitude;1 photo by Lincoln Potter 
A Recording Opportunity

My neighborhood in Cheung Chau, an island one hour by ferry from Hong Kong and with no cars, provided an environment particularly congenial to qin play. Here I began my recording music from the first major qin handbook, the Shen Qi Mi Pu (SQMP). Over several years, as part of my Shen Qi Mi Pu project, I recorded all of the music in that handbook onto six one-hour cassettes. Recording with cassettes is generally unsatisfactory for good quality sound recording, but in particular I felt that the close miking I had to use could not give me the sound I was looking for in a recording for general release.

I thought about hiring a studio to make a digital recording, or approaching some recording companies, but found it more pleasurable to learn new pieces and travel in my spare time, rather than perfect and record what I had done so far. Thus it was that after finishing the SQMP cassettes, rather than focus on professional quality recording of those, I instead began reconstructing, and recording on cassette, music from the second major qin handbook, Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (Zheyin), as well as a few later handbooks.

In 1994 a recording company I was visiting in connection with my work with the Festival of Asian Arts asked for a demonstration recording of my own qin playing, and on the basis of this demo offered me a contract to make one CD of my qin reconstructions.

Since the six hours of music in SQMP was too much, I thought about doing a Zheyin recording. So far I had learned those titles which occur there for the first time, amounting to about 45 to 50 minutes of music. The company wanted "at least an hour of music" on the CD. I then realized that if in addition I reconstructed those Zheyin titles which occur also in SQMP, but are different versions, the length would be just about right for one CD.

Once I had prepared this music for recording, though, I found I was not happy with the terms being offered. They were going to give me a small advance plus fly me to Germany to make the recording, the costs of which would also be considered as an advance against possible future royalties, which they said were rather unlikely. To my knowledge not even Chinese are making enough money to mention out of qin recordings, so this was not a major issue. However, it turned out that I would have to completely give up copyright (not to mention artistic) control of "my babies" to this company, and this I was unwilling to do.

Around this time my landlord agreed to replace my very old bedroom windows and I persuaded him to put in double pane windows, thinking perhaps with these I could try again recording at home. I also purchased a Sony TCD D10 Pro II DAT recorder and Shure VP88 stereo microphone. I then did some test recordings at home but was still not getting sufficiently satisfactory results for making a CD. There was too much unwanted noise in the recording, and I was not even sure where it was all coming from. At that time I was not aware of the necessity of a microphone preamp and more quiet microphones -- the Shure VP 88, I later discovered, is rather noisy, having a self-noise rating of 24 dB (A-weighted).

It was at this stage that I applied for a grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to, among other things, hire a studio to do the recording. When the grant was approved I looked around for the right studio. This proved to be very difficult. Without close miking, in Hong Kong even sound studios are rarely quiet enough for making a qin recording. When I finally selected a studio we had to do the recording from about midnight to 3 AM to get sufficient quiet, and even then I thought I could sometimes hear noises coming through the turned-off air conditioner (the sound engineer suggested I was imagining this).

 
Technical Details
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Studio Recording

In the studio we used three microphones. Left and right about 25 cm from the qin were an AKG and a Schoeps, assigned one track each. In the center was a Neumann at about 1 meter, assigned to two tracks. This went through a Yamaha mixer to an ADAT. From the ADAT the sound was then mixed back through the Yamaha onto two tracks on a hard disk, for editing.

I still do not know with certainty where the problem was in this recording, but the result was too much noise -- a background hiss which some people thought came from the room but most likely was coming from the recording system. I was told in particular that studio mixers often are surprisingly noisy because their internal microphone preamplifiers are inadequate

In addition, I was not satisfied with my playing. The environment was not right.

Home Recording

In the process of trying to find out what went wrong with the recording I came up with some new ideas about trying the recording at home. The most likely sources of noise within a digital recording system are: the microphone, the microphone preamp, and the analog to digital sound converter.

Based on qin output as read by an SPL (sound pressure level) meter, about 60 dB of gain are needed between my silk-string qin and the DAT, and the Sony TCD D10 Pro II cannot handle this adequately by itself. This meant getting an external microphone preamp. I considered several and then decided on the AERCO (website) because of its portability and good reputation; it is almost exactly the same size as a Walkman DAT recorder, which is what it was originally designed to be used with. It had had to be especially ordered from the maker in Texas, Jerry Chamkis (Jerry Chamkis).

For microphones, Schtung music of Hong Kong kindly loaned me two AKG C414B-ULS condenser microphones. These are very low noise, having a self-noise level of 14 dB. I was promised several other microphones to try, but succeeded in testing only some Sennheiser RF microphones (an MKH40 and MKH80, which are rated as having lower self-noise than the AKGs, but I couldn't get as good a result from them. Perhaps this was because they weren't as well matched to each other as the AKGs were).

Several people suggested that AKG 414s were not likely to be the most appropriate microphones -- the sound would be too "hard" (some said "revealing") for such a delicate instrument. Perhaps after I hear some other microphones I eventually will agree, but as of now I still like the sounds I was able to get using them. I felt that some of the comments about a hard sound were coming from the common desire to eliminate the sliding sounds from the recording as much as possible -- perhaps the 414s emphasize this sound frequency. I agree that these sounds should be minimized when the strings are made of metal, but in fact I like the sliding sounds from silk strings -- at least, I do when I can control them properly.

Concerning the analog to digital signal conversion, I was also able to borrow a US$3,000 Apogee AD-1000 analog to digital converter, but this did not seem to make a noticeable improvement. The sound might have been a bit warmer, but it also seemed to add some more internal noise. Perhaps I wasn't using it properly. In addition, it would have allowed me to record directly at 44.1. However, in addition to the cost, my system would then have become distinctly less portable.

This brings up the other problem with the Sony: it only records analog signals at a sampling frequency of 48. CDs use a sample rate of 44.1, so the Sony signal must then be converted, adding the possibility of more noise. In this regard I regret I did not buy the somewhat more expensive HHB Portadat recorder instead of the Sony.

In any case, by now I was quite happy with the system I was using, without the Apogee, and decided to take my chances on the later conversion of 48 to 44.1.

The Studio for Seeking Solitude, which served both as a study and a bedroom, was named after a SQMP qin melody, Zhao Yin. The room measured about 3.3 meters by 3.05 meters and was about 3 meters high. This was made somewhat smaller by the fact that all the walls were lined either with books or recordings, plus a home-made closet with a curtain hanging from the front. There was also a large picture window overlooking the sea, but during the recording I hung a blanket in front of it.

The qin was resting on a desk, which was solid and measured 124 by 66 centimeters. The two AKG microphones were on stands placed so that the microphones were above the far edge of the table. The angle from the qin to the microphones was 45 degrees off the plane of the table, putting them 75 cm from the closest part of the qin. They were about 50 cm apart and a cardioid position was selected. The 75 Hz roll-off filter was used because without it the recording seemed to pick up rumble.

I also tried also recording at 50 cm and 100 cm. The two distances did not seem to make much difference as far as sound level was concerned; closer meant more "presence", further meant more "space". If the room had been larger and more acoustically interesting I might have used the greater distance. I also tried putting the microphones closer together and crossing them, but preferred the "spacier" sound with the microphones further apart. If you listen to the qin in even a small room such as this one, closing your eyes as you do so, you cannot tell quite where the sound is coming from: its delicacy plus the length of the soundbox and the fact the two sound holes are underneath the instrument all combine to make the basic sound quite diffuse.

As for the recording level, different people had different views as to the relative proportionate gains of the DAT and the mic preamp. It was something of a moot case here. In order to get peak readings on the recording meter I had to turn the gain on the preamp all the way to the top (+ 70) and the DAT setting (attenuator) at 5 of 10. If the preamp was set down one notch to +60, even setting the DAT gain at max would not give peak readings.

As I recorded I noticed that with the above setting the meter very occasionally would go over the top and there would be audible distortion. This always occurred in passages where the strings were stopped near the 5th and 6th studs -- in other places I tried stroking the strings as hard as I could, but still couldn't get the meter to go over the top. The notes in this region that did go over the top, as I played, did not seem louder, but the sound must have in some way been fuller. Rather than lower the recording level I decided in these passages (perhaps a total of three or four) to be sure to play the relevant notes gently.

A small amount of noise came from the DAT recorder, so it was placed below the table and was covered with a blanket during the recording. I turned it on and off using a remote switch.

The major external noises I was getting were from my downstairs neighbor, who was in fact very quiet and considerate but my microphone was so sensitive it could pick up even small sounds from there, as well as from passing fishing boats. It would also pick up the sound if I had a sudden intake of breath. Of course I had to turn off my air-conditioner and even refrigerator during the recording.

During the recording period I thus took to getting up at 3.30 AM and recording until about six. The recording period lasted longer than expected because of fishing boats and because of some inclement weather. On some mornings I wasn't able to do any satisfactory recording at all. On others perhaps half an hour would be available. Fortunately, I found that time of day quite pleasant for playing and, there being no particular rush, the atmosphere was much better than in a studio.

This room also better followed traditional injunctions about proper places to play the qin.

In this regard it might be said that the faint sounds of fishing boats, or wind and rain, would be appropriate backdrops for qin music. However, it is my observation that the technique for recording these sounds is quite different from the technique for recording qin music. If someone wants these in their recording, I suggest they record the natural sounds separately and mix them in.

 
Studio Mixing Process

The DAT tape was taken to Ultimate One in Hong Kong for mixing. Here my tape was played back on a Sony PCM7030 DAT machine, going through a Sonic Solutions optical converter and sound processor card onto their hard disk, the signal at the same time being converted from 48 to 44.1 via Variable Speed Sample Rate Conversion.

The engineer at Ultimate One then edited my tracks, splicing where necessary and cleaning up the beginning and ending of each track. I was happy to note that they said the sound was good enough as it was, and did not need de-noising, filtering or (horrors!) reverb. Something called "declicking" was applied to two or three notes which had some unsatisfactory distortion based on idiosyncrasies of the qin I was playing.

 
Xiao Xiang Yeyu (Night Rain over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers)

This qin, though recently repaired, had some unevenness in the surface around the 12th and 13th studs, at the lower end of the qin, under the first two strings, which meant that one had to be careful in playing open notes on those two strings or a buzzing sound would result. More problematic was a crack between the 6th and 7th studs underneath the 5th, 6th and 7th strings, near the center of the instrument. If one needs to play at the position 6.2 on one of these three strings, such buzzing is unavoidable. With practice this sound can be minimized, but the observant listener can easily hear this sound in some parts of the recording.

However, in general I would say that I liked so much the sound of this lovely old relic that I viewed such seemingly extraneous sounds as part of its character, not as flaws.

For further information on the qin used in the recording see Xiao Xiang Ye Yu.

 
Summary

Many people have told me they think my recording more accurately captures the sound of the qin than any other recordings they have heard, and I also found the results sufficiently satisfying that I repeated them for my Shen Qi Mi Pu recordings, though for those I had to use my own qins.

 
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 招隱室 Zhaoyin Shi (Studio for Seeking Solitude)
The Shen Qi Mi Pu melody Zhao Yin can be translated either as "Seeking Solitude" (招隱士 Zhao Yinshi) or as "Seeking a Recluse". As is explained there, "seeking a recluse" can suggest you wish the recluse to return to society. However, the melody seems to be expressing another meaning of zhao yin: the desire to join the recluse. Thus, in the Studio for Seeking Solitude one does not seek necessarily to be alone, only to be away from the common concerns of society.

In Hong Kong, my Studio for Seeking Solitude was a room in my home on Cheung Chau island overlooking the South China Sea. Here I did my recordings for Music Beyonds Sound and the Handbook of Spiritual and Marvelous Mysteries.

In 2001, after I moved to the New York area, I made a new Studio for Seeking Solitude in the basement of our home there. In 2006 I began putting recordings I made there online. This is discussed in a footnote to the page on which you can hear MP3 files from both the old studio and the new ones.

The same footnote also mentions additions/changes to my recording equipment (in particular a Fostex FR-2LE Field Memory Recorder and a Mac with Logic Express for editing). These I used with the earlier equipment in the new Studio for Seeking Solitude I had at our home in Mumbai between 2009 and 2011. In 2011 my Fostex blew up and was replaced by a Roland R-26 Portable Recorder; while in Singapore from 2011 to 2013 I used this without the external microphones.
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